Coffee and My Spiritual Journey.

DSC_0717.JPGI loved coffee. I was what we call in Melbourne a ‘coffee snob’. I began drinking coffee in my teens. I started on instant coffee: first Nescafe and then Moccona. Once I turned eighteen, my taste developed and I began drinking percolated coffee. A ritual of passage as it were. For many years I drank just café lattes: a shot of coffee in a cup of steamed milk. Only one sugar, never two because two sugars made the coffee taste too sweet. I drank various brands, local and imported, Vittoria, Segafredo, Lavazza, Coffex, and the list goes on.

I first drank an ‘Illy’ coffee when I worked in Sydney. I worked there for two years. Two years of ‘Illy’ coffee was pretty good. Always lattes. While working in Sydney, I saved enough money to go to Europe. I quit my job and backpacked around Europe for one year. I didn’t like London too much, but France, Italy, Spain, Malta, Poland, Austria, Hungary and the other countries on the continent that I visited were excellent. In Paris, I sat in a café one morning and drank my first espresso. A small white cup containing a shot of pure coffee essence. I added a sugar. It was smooth and delicious. I followed the espresso with a café au lait, i.e. a white coffee. That was delicious too. I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast at that café in Paris, but I remember those two coffees. I still think about them.

After a year in Europe, I returned to Melbourne and my taste for coffee continued to evolve. I could no longer drink instant coffee. Its coarseness burned my sensitive throat. Nor could I drink Starbucks coffee.

Melbournians don’t drink Starbucks. Starbucks opened several branches around the city catering mostly for foreign Asian students, however, most of the branches closed after several years. There might be one or two left. Actually I lie. I did visit Starbucks several times in Beijing and Shanghai when I backpacked around China in 2004; but that was in extremis.

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On the shore of West Lake, Hangzhou, 2008

When I returned to China in 2008, the coffee scene had become more sophisticated. Finding a Segafredo signature café on the shores of West Lake in the resort city of Hangzhou was memorable; it was the city where Mao Zedong retired to in the early 1960s, in between his Communist Revolution and his Cultural Revolution. The café was warm and empty except for me and a pretty good Chinese barista. I would gaze out over a cold and grey West Lake, read Italian magazines (looking at the pictures mostly) and sip café lattes. It was a special time. The Chinese barista really crafted those café lattes. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had flown to Italy for training. The café was a vacant treasure.

Life, the growth of the mind and the body, can be measured in ten-year blocks. Each successive block of ten years brings new experiences and a new outlook. In my 30s, my taste for coffee matured. My metabolism began to change. I noticed that if I ate too much ice cream or drank too many ice coffees (with lots of milk and icecream) my svelte figure lost its svelteness. I grew a pot belly. Even walking four kilometres to work each day didn’t reduce the pot. I put it down to the sugar and the milk. So I got rid of the sugar first. I stopped having sugar in my coffee. After a month, my taste buds adapted and I preferred coffee without sugar.

Next was the milk. I began transitioning from café lattes to long macchiatos. A short macchiato is an espresso with a dash of milk. It also has a distinctive appearance. At the bottom of the glass is a band of pure black coffee, followed in the middle by a band of dark brown mixed coffee and milk and on top a crown of white milk. The difference between a short macchiato and a long macchiato is the size. A long macchiato is generally the same size as a café latte or a long black.

If I visited a café I would order a long macchiato. At home I brewed my own. I have an Italian made steel stove boiler. I tended to drink long blacks at home and cut out the milk all together. I would use Lavazza or Vittoria coffee, sometimes Coffex. However, I began to become more discriminating in the coffee that I permitted to touch my tongue. I experimented with my own blends. I visited a coffee merchant at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne and started trying coffees from around the world, from New Guinea and the Atherton Tablelands in Northern Australia, Brazil and Cuba. The blend I preferred was a mix of half Dark Colombian and half Mexican beans. The Dark Colombian beans gave the hit and the Mexican beans gave the smooth texture. A good combination.

I also became more choosy about the cafés I frequented to satiate my caffeine addiction. I still visited Italian cafes, but I spent more time in cafés like ‘Seven Seeds’ and ‘Wide Open Road’. These two cafes were members of a new generation of cafés that began emerging in Melbourne, mostly north of the CBD and the Yarra River, in the mid-2000s. They sourced their own beans from around the world, roasted those beans and created their own blends on the premises. The standard of the coffee at these cafes was excellent and so was the food.

As I said, I loved coffee. I loved the look and I loved the taste of it. I loved the ritual of sitting down at a café alone, ordering a coffee and writing. I loved sipping the coffee, listening to other people talk and looking at my words. And I loved sitting in a cafe with friends, drinking coffee and sharing our views on life. I loved all these aspects of coffee culture. But I also knew I was addicted to coffee.

I am 44 years old now. By my late thirties I was drinking two or three long macchiatos or long blacks, sometimes more, a day. I have always known that any kind of addiction, be it mental or physical, is wrong because it weakens the mind and the body. I witnessed how nicotine and alcohol addiction had killed my father and step-father. I wrote about the wrongs of addiction in my book The Straight Path:

Avoid drugs and stimulants. Drugs give pleasure not happiness. Stimulants ease tiredness for a time, but they quickly take back what they have given and more. Both are addictive. Addiction weakens the body. The body enslaved by addiction is unwilling to listen to the commands of the mind and the soul. It heeds only the cries of its addiction. Addiction is evil because it robs the body of its purpose. p. 32.

And for the most part I heeded these words; I practiced what I preached. A bit like Socrates and his daemon, his guardian spirit, I always had a voice in my mind that warned me against addiction. I smoked nicotine a couple of times in my teens, but stopped when I felt the craving for a smoke for the first time. The voice was there. I tried marijuana as a young adult, but when I experienced my first real high I never had it again. The voice was there. I didn’t have a TV between the ages of 18 to the age of 28. I read instead. I know TV wastes time. The voice was there. I sometimes watch it now, but often have too much else to do. I refuse to have a mobile phone. I don’t need the voice to understand the addictive nature of these objects. I see the compulsive need in the eyes of many people to constantly look at their screens, and the anxiety they experience when denied this need. I managed to avoid all these sources of physical and mental addiction in my life – except for caffeine.

I also understood that addiction blocked my spiritual growth. I studied Patanjali, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Mencius, Jesus, Mohammed, Gandhi, Ignatius of Loyola and other philosophers and mystics. They all agreed on one point – that it is necessary to master the desires of the body to gain greater spiritual insight and draw closer to God. Regardless of the meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices I performed, my caffeine addiction acted as an anchor upon my spiritual path because it denied me control of my body. I knew I had to break the chain of this addiction.

I had tried several times from my mid-twenties onwards to give up coffee. I would stay off coffee for several weeks or two months at the maximum. I would then relapse and start drinking it again.

Deciding to give up coffee always required planning. I would need to choose an appropriate time when I wasn’t under the pump at work, preferably on holidays, and when I knew I would be able to deal with the week-long headache that would ensue. Deep down though, even when I gave up coffee for a time, I still wanted to drink coffee again. And this is why I did. I kept drinking coffee because I wanted to drink coffee.

H3N2 Flu strain image SMH 01012018
CGI Image of the H3N2 strain of pneumonia I caught in July 2017 (Sydney Morning Herald)

Then in late July of 2017, I got the flu, a nasty strain of pneumonia. I had never had the flu before. Colds yes, but not the flu. A lot of people in Australia died from this flu. I experienced severe muscle aches and could only sleep a maximum of two or three hours straight a night because of the pain. I also had headaches and fevers that rose and fell. I had the flu for over a week.

As I lay on my bed fatigued, muscles sore and headache pumping, I realised an opportunity had presented itself to me to give up coffee again. Hopefully for the last time. I already had a massive headache from the flu. I reasoned that the headaches I would get from the caffeine withdrawal couldn’t be any worse.

So on the second day of the flu, I stopped drinking coffee. The headaches and muscle pains from the flu masked the headaches from the caffeine withdrawal. After a week or so the flu symptoms abated, as did the symptoms from not drinking coffee.

The disease changed my perception of coffee. I no longer desired the taste of it. Perhaps the disease burned away the desire. I still liked the smell and the taste of coffee, but I no longer wanted to drink it. And for me this was the key – I broke the addiction by breaking the desire.

It is January 2018. I have not drunk a coffee for six months. Sometimes I think about having another macchiato, just one, but I push the thought aside. It is a thought of the body, not of the mind. Suffering teaches much. The flu gave me mental balance. And without coffee, I am calmer and more relaxed.  I no longer have the caffeine buzz and I have gained greater control over my thoughts and my mind. Breaking my caffeine addiction was a further step along my spiritual path. Not a big step, but a step nonetheless.

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